When it comes to masturbating with sex toys, why should women have all the fun?
I had never heard of the Fleshlight until a few months ago, when my friend pulled up a photo on her phone to illustrate a point. If you haven't seen one, it looks like an oversized flashlight on the outside. But pop off the lid and voila, a pair of flesh-colored, fake labia are exposed. Instead of the tried-and-true hand technique, men thrust into a soft, stretchy, artificial vagina, transforming masturbation into an experience closer to penetrative sex.
Amazing, I thought. Surely, an upgrade from old-fashioned jerking off. Now why doesn't every man I know own one? Almost all of my girlfriends have a vibrator — or five — stashed bedside. But none of my guy friends or boyfriends had ever even mentioned using masturbation toys. Odder still, when I started asking all the men I know if they'd used one, their reactions ranged from incredulity to defensiveness.
Turns out masturbation toys for men aren't so cool. Unlike vibrators — which are now considered so innocuous they're sold in pharmacies — men's masturbation toys still carry a cultural stigma. A woman with a vibrator is sexy; a man with a toy is creepy, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
But that may be about to change.
If you haven't checked out the market recently, men's masturbation toys have gone classy. Far from the simplistic "pocket pussies" of the past, the new toys are constructed with high-quality materials. They heat up. They vibrate — unsurprisingly, vibration feels good on a penis too. The sleazy, crude packaging that has kept products relegated to dimly-lit back rooms has vanished. Perhaps most importantly, many new models are non-representational, which means they don't try to mimic female anatomy. Sleek and sophisticated, they're designed to appeal to the gadget-loving modern man.
And why not? As one Reddit user summed it up: "The skin on my hands is rough, the skin on my penis isn't. Sometimes guys just need a more luxurious wank."
At Babeland, a popular sex toy shop in New York City, sales of men's masturbation toys more than doubled in the past few years as new, high-end toys were introduced. Anne Semans, Babeland's marketing director, credits the boost in sales to an improved selection and a growing acceptance of sex toys in society as a whole. "As women get more comfortable using and buying sex toys, by default, it's happening in the men's arena as well," says Semans.
It's possible that men's toys will go mainstream, like vibrators have for women. But it's worth asking why a stigma exists in the first place. From the dozen or so men I spoke with, I learned that for some, using — or admitting to using — a toy is seen as an admission they can't find someone to sleep with.
"Male masturbation toys, and male masturbation in general, is generally not discussed among straight men," said a 37-year-old computer consultant, who has purchased multiple toys for solo use. "I think there is some machismo that you shouldn't have to whack off because you're such a stud you can get laid with a real woman whenever you need," he said. "Toys seem to imply a step further away from that stud-ness."
A 30-year-old writer living in New York City agreed. "The implication is that if you are into very elaborate masturbating, it's probably because you're not getting laid. Most guys view the ability to get laid as such a defining characteristic of masculinity, that I think having some kind of extravagant masturbating interests would probably just peg you as a loser."
Obviously, not all men are toy-phobic. Many gay men and more adventurous straight men are open about enjoying toys. But for the straight, vanilla dude, it's just not something that's discussed.
Many women also seem uncomfortable with the idea. Sex columnist Dan Savage has reported that he used to receive letters from men who felt threatened by vibrators. Those letters hardly arrive anymore. Now, he gets letters from women who have stumbled on their partner's masturbation toy and are freaked out.
It's likely the fear Savage identified is due to lack of awareness. There hasn't been a pop culture moment for men's toys, like the famous Rabbit episode on Sex and the City. Like anything unknown, it can be scary.
It wasn't so long ago that vibrators were deemed deviant. Dr. Rachel Maines, a historian who wrote a book on the vibrator, credited the openness with which ladies can now buy toys to the women's liberation movement of the 1960s. "It made it possible for a woman to walk into a store and say ‘I want my vibrator,'" she said. "I guess we need a men's liberation movement."
My mother came of age during this time, and I asked her what it was like. She
remembered a lot of giggling, as women purchased toys together. Joking about the toys helped lessen the embarrassment. "I have a hard time seeing guys giggling about this together," she said.
Maybe not, but they might giggle about them with their girlfriends.
When I visited the Babeland in SoHo, sex educator Leah pointed out the many couples shopping together. "Men are really excited to find out that if they want toys that don't look like vaginas, it's an option," she said. "It's a lot less threatening for women."
She was hopeful men's toys would be mainstreamed into society, given enough time.
"The world is still adjusting to sex toys being okay," she said. "At the end of the day, if it's on the bedside table, it's offering you a new sensation, a new experience. Ultimately it doesn't matter if people think it's strange, because it feels really good."
Melissa Jeltsen is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @quasimado, where she's usually not tweeting about sex toys.
Image by Jim Cooke.